Stephen M. Walt

On academic freedom

This week the Los Angeles Times published an op-ed by Rivka Carmi, the president of Ben Gurion University. It was a response to Neve Gordon’s earlier op-ed announcing his support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel’s occupation. Gordon is a tenured faculty member at BGU and chairman of the international relations department. ...


This week the Los Angeles Times published an op-ed by Rivka Carmi, the president of Ben Gurion University. It was a response to Neve Gordon’s earlier op-ed announcing his support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel’s occupation. Gordon is a tenured faculty member at BGU and chairman of the international relations department. He is also a decorated IDF veteran, an accomplished scholar, and a long-time peace advocate. (See here for my earlier discussion of Gordon’s op-ed, including my own disagreements with it).   

Carmi’s initial response to Gordon’s article showed that she has little understanding of the core concept of academic freedom, insofar as she and her official spokesperson both made it clear that they think Gordon should consider leaving the university (if not the country) on account of his views. Her op-ed makes it clear her early reactions were not just a hasty misjudgment but rather a reflection of her core values. As such, they reveal why she is unfit for academic leadership at any institution that prizes free inquiry and open discussion.

Here’s the key passage from Carmi’s op-ed:

Academic freedom exists to ensure that there is an unfettered and free discussion of ideas relating to research and teaching and to provide a forum for the debate of complicated ideas that may challenge accepted norms. Gordon, however, used his pulpit as a university faculty member to advocate a personal opinion, which is really demagoguery cloaked in academic theory.

In other words, if your research and expertise leads you to express a “personal opinion” on important and controversial issues, and if that opinion isn’t acceptable to your University’s president, look out. By her standard, an American academic who concluded and openly stated that either the invasion of Iraq or the Bush/Cheney torture regime justified an international boycott of the United States would be unfit for a faculty position and could be sanctioned by his or her university merely for stating that view. Similarly, a scholar whose research led him or her to conclude that assassinating foreign leaders is morally or strategically preferable to invading an enemy country could also be sanctioned, because that recommendation was a “personal opinion.” (Just to be clear, I’m not endorsing either of those views, although I know a few scholars who might).

Needless to say, everything that scholars write is their “personal opinion,” based on the knowledge they have accumulated in the course of their research. And the concept of academic freedom is intended to insulate scholars from precisely the sort of pressure that Carmi is trying to bring to bear on Gordon. Anyone’s research and commentary can be denounced as “personal opinion” if some administrator doesn’t like it, or if it is inconvenient for those in charge, which is precisely why the principle is so important. The reason we have open scholarly debate and discussion is so that we can weigh these “personal opinions” (and the evidence behind them) and come to greater collective understanding of important issues.  

Carmi then reveals her real concern: 

This is particularly pernicious for our university, a proudly Zionist institution that embodies the dream of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, to bring development and prosperity to all the residents of the Negev region. This work — which includes community outreach and scientific innovation in Israel and around the world carried out by nearly 25,000 students, faculty and staff — is being threatened by the egregious remarks of one person, under the guise of academic freedom.

I can’t tell if Carmi believes that all BGU faculty members must be committed Zionists (which would presumably rule out Israeli Arabs, anyone advocates of a bi-national state, or even some ultra-Orthodox Jews) but it’s clear from the full text that her real concern is fund-raising. Specifically, she’s worried that donors will punish BGU because of the views of one faculty member, and that’s why she has to go after him in public. But a principle like “academic freedom” isn’t worth much if you sell it out because it might cost you a few checks from wealthy donors. To have the president of a university leading a public flogging like this can only have a chilling effect on the overall atmosphere. If I were an untenured member of the faculty at BGU, or even a tenured member, and I was thinking about writing something that might be controversial, I would now have to ask myself: “what will President Carmi think and what might she do to damage my career?” Is that a situation likely to encourage free thought and discussion?  

She goes on to charge that:

Gordon has forfeited his ability to work effectively within the academic setting, with his colleagues in Israel and around the world. After his very public, personal soul-searching in his Op-Ed article, leading to his extreme description of Israel as an “apartheid” state, how can he, in good faith, create the collaborative atmosphere necessary for true academic research and teaching?

Carmi presents no evidence that Gordon “cannot work effectively” with his colleagues, and her claim is contradicted by the fact that nearly 200 Israeli academics and students (including colleagues at BGU) have already signed a petition defending him (without necessarily endorsing his views, of course).  Universities are usually filled with people who disagree with each other — sometimes vehemently — and every faculty I’ve ever been on also has a few loners who don’t collaborate well with others and can be difficult to manage.  But presidents, deans, and other responsible administrators are supposed to hold those diverse communities of thought together, not try to drive out anyone with whom they disagree. Yet President Carmi has said that demands that Gordon resign his post as department chair are “legitimate,” and that she hopes he will “reach the right conclusions.”

Several other aspects of this incident merit comment. First, although Carmi obviously disagrees with what Gordon wrote — which she’s entirely free to do — her op-ed devotes almost no space to actually refuting either his claim that Israel has become an apartheid state or his claim that an international boycott is the only way to save Israel from itself. These are controversial assertions, to be sure, and a number of thoughtful people — including prominent leftists like Uri Avnery — have offered sharply-worded critiques of his position.  But instead of explaining why she thinks he’s wrong — as a true scholar would — her focus is on the damage he allegedly has done to BGU and his unfitness for continued service there. She admits she can’t fire him, but leaves little doubt that she would if she could. Now that’s an attitude that is likely to encourage free thought!

Second, like Phil Weiss, I suspect the LA Times printed her piece because they took a lot of heat for running Gordon’s original op-ed. But instead of giving the space to someone who would challenge the substance of Gordon’s claims and recommendations, they gave the space to his boss, so that she could explain why his remarks were bad for the university she runs. This is unfortunate, but not unusual when dealing with the always-sensitive subject of Israel in the United States.

Third, this issue is important because universities are among the last bastions of free thought and debate in many democratic societies. The think tank world in most countries — and this includes the United States — is heavily donor-driven, and many of them exist solely to disseminate a particular world-view. “Academic freedom” has little meaning in most think tanks. Consider, for example, what would happen to you if you worked at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy — an important part of the Israel lobby — and you publicly stated that you thought Neve Gordon was right. You would probably be fired or forced to recant, because WINEP (and many other think tanks) isn’t in the business of encouraging truly open inquiry. I don’t expect to see anyone at AEI defending socialism either, and if they did, I wouldn’t expect them to stay there for long.

But universities are supposed to be different. They are also sensitive to what donors think, of course, which is why the principle of academic freedom has to be defended vigorously. Contrary to what many people think, donors don’t get to pick the faculty and don’t get to determine what they say (although some of them might like to!). But academic administrators do pay attention when donors are unhappy, which is why universities need strong and principled leaders who know where to draw the line and can stand up to outside pressure. If they don’t, the faculty quickly learns what might get them into trouble — even if only marginally — and many will begin to trim their sails. The result is either scholarship that avoids controversial subjects or that confines its commentary within “acceptable” boundaries. And when that happens, foolish but well-entrenched policies are less likely to be examined, and the society as a whole is more likely to suffer.

If President Carmi understood her job correctly, she would make it clear that she disagrees vehemently with Professor Gordon’s views, while making it equally clear that she defends his right to hold and express them, and that she is proud that Ben Gurion University is an institution in which especially unpopular views can be expressed and debated. Sadly, that is not going to happen.

Finally, the Middle East Studies Association has sent a letter to President Carmi on Gordon’s behalf, see here. If you’re interested in the American Political Science Association’s general statement on academic freedom, see here.

One more thing: In a bizarre parallel, the New York Times reported earlier this week that government authorities in Iran are contemplating a purge of social science faculties at Iranian universities, which are believed to have been incubators of discontent as manifest following the recent elections. In particular, some faculty members are accused of fostering “un-Islamic” ideas. I’m not suggesting that the two situations are identical, but it reminds us that once people start enforcing orthodoxy in academic settings, it can be hard to know where to stop.


Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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